top of page

Political Courage Test Response Rates and Voter Participation Trends Over Time 1996–2022

Voter participation and an informed electorate are two core aspects of a successful democracy. Since its inception, Vote Smart’s mission has been providing millions of voters with non-partisan, unbiased information to ensure they have all the facts before casting a ballot. A pivotal piece in accomplishing that goal is administering the Political Courage Test to all candidates for legislative or executive office. This test provides candidates with the opportunity to boldly inform voters of their specific policy prescriptions for the hot button issues of each election cycle. Vote Smart tests these candidates in order to increase the electorate's access to free political information, which we in turn hope will heighten motivation to participate in the democratic process.

Vote Smart's Political Courage Test 2022 congressional edition
Figure 1

Vote Smart initially was only able to test a select portion of candidates; however, the scope of the test has grown in step with the organization. The first year that Vote Smart began testing candidates on a large scale was 1996 in which Vote Smart covered a total of 12,427 candidates. Since then, each candidate running for presidential, gubernatorial, congressional, or state legislative offices have all had the opportunity to provide voters with their stance on the most pertinent issues of a given election cycle. For the 2022 midterm elections we covered 31,717 candidates, which is an increase of 19,290 candidates since 1996. This comprehensive coverage of every candidate running for legislative or executive office has required a high level of dedication from staff, interns, and volunteers. The history and development of the PCT helps to illustrate Vote Smart’s role in U.S. politics over the past 30 years as well as its potential role going forward. Vote Smart’s commitment to providing free, fact-driven information to all Americans is critical as voters become more engaged with the U.S. political process.

Voter participation rates have drastically increased over the past 30 years of Vote Smart’s existence. Measuring trends in PCT responses from 1996 through today helps provide a unique lens of analyzing these trends through the context of our organization. The PCT was designed not only to give candidates an opportunity to inform voters but also to provide voters with fact-based information on the specific positions of those who wish to represent them in government. Administration of the PCT has helped increase voter access to candidate policy positions, which Vote Smart hopes will help encourage more individuals to vote. Widespread access to factual information is necessary to ensure that anyone wishing to participate in the democratic process has an informed chance to do so. Accurate information will always be a necessity for the function of a healthy democracy, which illustrates the immense importance of Vote Smart continuing to put its mission into practice through developing and administering the PCT.

With the notable exception of 2014, which appears to be an outlier for voter participation with just 36.7% of eligible voters casting a ballot, voter participation has rapidly increased since 1996. According to voter turnout data, participation amongst the eligible electorate is at an all time high, and more Americans are engaged in the democratic process than ever before. In 2020, 66.6% of eligible voters casted a ballot and 2018, and 2022 saw record voter participation rates for a midterm election with 50% and 46.6%. Along with voter participation, voter registration has soared, especially for younger voters. Compared to 2018, key battleground states such as Michigan and Nevada saw a 38% and 18% increase in registrations for voters between the ages of 18–24 in 2022. This increase in overall voter turnout coupled with high youth participation is an exciting trend for the future of democracy, as it is evident that more and more Americans are in tune with the stake they hold in the union.

Graph of voting turnout compared to eligible population 1996–2022
Figure 2

While voter participation is increasing and our coverage of candidates has continued to expand, the amount of candidates willing to provide voters with answers to the Political Courage Test is decreasing. Candidate response rate has trended downwards across all four offices since the mid 2000s. It is curious to observe that the increase in voter participation shows a clear demand for the PCT as a product. A high proportion of Americans have clearly indicated their interest in the U.S. political process at all levels of government. At a time when the need for access to candidate stances and authentic reporting has increased, candidates have become less interested in providing voters with this information. This trend away from verifiable commitment to specific policy points directly coincides with a troubling lack of trust in government. In fact the percentage of citizens indicating they trust in the government has remained below 30% since 2007, around the same time PCT response rates began their decrease.

Graph of trends in political courage test response rates by office
Figure 3

Voters have become highly engaged with U.S. politics despite having largely lost faith in their representative officials. Their satisfaction has not increased in step with participation. We at Vote Smart believe that the path to restoring faith in America's democratic institutions lies with transparency. We call upon all prospective candidates to consider filling out the PCT if tested, as providing voters with detailed information on policy positions is imperative to building faith in the credibility of the electoral process. Vote Smart will certainly appreciate each response and contribution as our staff and interns continue to dedicate themselves to providing facts.

“US Elections Project - Voter Turnout Data.” US Elections Project - Voter Turnout Data. Accessed February 10, 2023.

DeSilver, Drew. “Turnout Soared in 2020 as Nearly Two-Thirds of Eligible U.S. Voters Cast Ballots for President.” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, January 28, 2021.

“Youth Voter Registration Is up Compared to 2018-Especially in Key Battlegrounds.” Circle at Tufts, November 1, 2022.

Bell, Peter. “Public Trust in Government: 1958-2022.” Pew Research Center - U.S. Politics & Policy. Pew Research Center, June 6, 2022.

This research was compiled by Caleb Courtney and Seth Kallestad.

Caleb Courtney (he/him/his) has been at Vote Smart since April 2022 and has since researched candidate issue positions and biographies. Prior to his start at the organization, Caleb studied political science and history at the University of Iowa. In his free time, he enjoys traveling and has been to over 20 states.

Seth Kallestad (he/him/his) has been at Vote Smart since May 2022 and collects biographical information for candidates running for office. Prior to working at the organization, Seth studied political science and history at Iowa State University. In his free time, he reads science fiction and spends time with his dogs.

135 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page